A ROOKIE KENNEL’S COMPARISON OF ULTRA-MARATHON SLED DOG RACES

Any way you look at it, 1000 miles is daunting.In the world of distance mushing, a 1,000-mile race tends to be the end goal: the thing to strive for, train for, and obsess about. It may build you up, it might destroy you, but it will definitely change you.Rookies are haunted by stories and intimidated by legends. In the end, the biggest factor in completing the race or not can be how prepared you are. This article is what I learned—some of it the hard way—during our kennel’s rookie experience in both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod, and I am specific in using the word kennel instead of musher because it’s the whole operation that succeeds or not. Hopefully, others contemplating entering one of these races in the future can benefit from this information.ENTRY FEE BREAKDOWNLooking at entry fees, and what is covered or provided for these fees, the Quest was a heck of a deal. The Quest’s $1,500 entry fee covered virtually everything related to the race, including prerace veterinary exams, shipping out straw and drops bags (as many as I wanted), and two tickets to the starting and finishing banquets, so I could have my spouse/handler accompany me at no extra charge. The Quest did not actually provide the drop bags, however, and it cost around $50 to purchase them myself. Also, with Quest, finishers receive $1,500 for finishing, basically their entry fee back.The Iditarod’s $4,000 entry fee also covered prerace veterinary exams and the exams covered an additional electrocardiogram, micro-chips for the dogs, and a blood screen to potentially identify and screen out any dogs that could suffer from heart-related ailments during the race. The Iditarod only provided one ticket for each banquet, but they did provide a little bit more swag (stuff we all get), including a bottle of wine with my picture on it, which was a very unique way to remember the occasion. Finishers receive $1,049 back, only a quarter of their sign-up fee. Iditarod mushers were provided with dropbags (three, plus one return bag) for each checkpoint, but I was responsible for covering the cost to mail out all my supplies, which was very expensive considering postage was $0.55 per pound from Anchorage. This unforeseen expense became the focus of much thought since with 1,000-mile races the dogs will be burning tremendous amounts of calories from running day after day, but also additional food must be sent out to cover varying weather conditions. Anything from 40 below to 40 above had to be considered, as well as the very real possibility of getting pinned down in one place for hours or days due to a storm, virus, or some other reason. In the Quest, mushers can feel good about sending out huge volumes of food to cover any scenario because they know that every bag of snacks and every bite of kibble they don’t use will get picked up by their handlers. However, in the Iditarod food items are not returned, so for mushers on a tight budget like us, this became tricky. If we sent out too little, we risked not having enough if the weather turned inclement, but if we sent out too much extra we knew we were losing a lot of money. Adding to the dilemma, the Iditarod requires mushers to send out food to every checkpoint, even ones you don’t intend to stop at. This was another contrast to the Quest where—mostly due to the long distances between checkpoints—mushers were expected to know from experience how much fuel and groceries they needed to haul to ensure they didn’t carry too much and overburden their team, nor carry too little and risk running out of some necessity that could jeopardize them or their dogs’ safety. Most mushers we talked to before the races said they send out around 2,000 pounds of food and gear, but for the Quest, we sent out roughly 1,500 pounds of food and gear. We came up with this amount by doubling what we had been using on long training runs with camping trips. For the Iditarod 24-hour supplies to two checkpoints with our total weight ending up being 1,521 pounds which came to $837 to ship. In the end, we got lucky and had sent out pretty close to what we needed for both races, but rookies should consider sending out more than less when they’re uncertain.TRAVEL EXPENSESQuest mushers can count on shelling out a lot of gas money, while in Iditarod there is no way to get around airfare for the musher, dogs and whoever attends the finish. When calculating expenses, fuel efficiency and accommodations vary person to person, but for the Quest we slept in the dog-truck quite often to cut costs. We spent about $1,425 in gas and rounded it up to $2,000 set aside for travel expenses. This included gas to get my food drops to Fairbanks and getting to the race start, following it and getting home. However, due to the cold we ran the truck almost three weeks straight without turning it off. This wear and tear is tough to calculate, but undoubtedly will influence the lifetime of the vehicle. For Iditarod, getting my food drops to Anchorage was much closer, but it wasn’t my only trip to the big city. Unlike the Quest, Iditarod mushers must make plans for someone to make several trips to Anchorage during the course of the race to pick up dropped dogs, and this gas money was overlooked when planning our Iditarod budget. We dog-pooled with other mushers as best we could, but still ended up making a couple of trips, which for us was a three-hour drive one way.The cost for us (my handler and I) to return from Nome to include one sled, gear, 14 dogs, and two people came to about $1,400. Also, since mushers fly home they also must arrange transportation for their dogs from the airport. This meant another drive to Anchorage, plus leaving the dog truck in long-term parking while we were in Nome attending post-race festivities, and these parking expenses also added up quickly. Then, in spring, we had to make the drive one last time when my sled and return bags came in.The other unforeseen and significant expense with the Iditarod was accommodations in Nome. Race organizers said that adequate accommodations would be arranged if we turned in a housing form, but we were told final arrangements would be made once we got to Nome. When my handler got there, race officials informed him there was little available. The only provided option was floor space with several other mushers in a place on the outskirts of town. I didn’t want to be so far away from the dogs, which had just worked so hard to get me there. They needed meals and massages every couple of hours, and taking a cab several times a day to perform these tasks seemed ridiculous. Since we had been told post-race accommodations would be provided, there were no hotels or B & B’s to stay in, but my handler scrambled and found a tiny apartment close to the dog lot for $100 a night. We had five days until the finishing banquet, so paying for this place on our own came to $500. In the Quest we were able to take advantage of an incredible home-stay, arranged by organizers weeks before the race. This situation added to our overall rookie experience by offering a fantastic cultural exchange with a Yukoner, but also staying with someone who lived in the start/finish city greatly streamlined our race planning. At the mandatory 36-hour rest, we could have stayed in the campground for free, but due to the cold we booked a room for the night for $85. This was our only unforeseen expense.PRERACEBoth races held prerace meetings for rookies, and each was informative and helpful. The Quest rookie meeting seemed to focus on what mushers needed to know to run this specific 1,000-mile race, while the Iditarod’s rookie meeting seemed more about how to prepare for a 1,000-mile race in general. At this level of my racing career this latter meeting seemed almost dumbed-down, but it would have been a great meeting for a beginner. Much of the information would have been useful about five years ago when I first started planning a possible run in the Iditarod.A prominent topic in both meetings was dealing with the media. In the Quest the meeting dealt more with how the media should interact with us, such as not approaching us when we first get in, not approaching the dogs while they’re sleeping or eating, etc. In the Iditarod, it was the total opposite. It was all about the expectations the race had for how we should interact with the media. We were even coached by the Iditarod on what to say to them during a “practice interview,” which included a few suggested quotes. This seemed very disingenuous, but it was also personally frustrating. I own my dogs, I personally feed them every meal and put every training mile on them, and I truly love them. Being a musher isn’t my hobby, it is my lifestyle, so it was hard to hear people who rent teams—including a few self-admitted belt buckle chasers—rehearsing lines which to the media, fans and potential sponsors make them sound as equally devoted to their dogs as I am.While the Iditarod’s rookie meeting could be streamlined, the Last Great Race does offer mushers a unique opportunity in the ceremonial start. This was essentially a huge tailgate party that allowed for a thrilling run without the pressure of the race. It also showcased the dogs for fans and spectators in a way that far exceeded a typical race-start scenario. It was an unexpected blast.LOGISTICSIn addition to information provided on their website, the Quest sent out comprehensive race packages before the race with very accurate mileages for the entire course and from checkpoint to checkpoint. Also, almost as soon as the snow began to fly and rivers froze, the Quest began sending regular updates about the trail. Snowmachiners ran a few legs and reported back, while other times it would be updates from villagers, trappers or mushers who lived along the route. This helped immensely with planning since extra food and booties could be sent to areas predicted to be bad. As the final days of the race drew near, the Quest held all their pre-race meetings and it was there that they finalized the picture of the trail they had been painting for weeks. They made mushers aware of any minor detours to the known route, again with accurate mileages and descriptions of sections. Numerous weather and trail updates were also made throughout the race. All of this was very helpful to a rookie run.The Iditarod, like the Quest, doesn’t follow the exact same route every year, so there are going to be some differences to mileage every year, but the Iditarod seemed to have several sets of official distances for the course, and having now done it, some seem almost laughable. The discrepancies ranged from 908 miles to as much as 1,150 (oddly, the race ball-caps for this past year’s event even had 1,291 on them), which in the terms of distance racing, could be the difference of several more runs, and subsequently that much more groceries for dogs and musher. The checkpoint to checkpoint mileages – not those listed on the Website, but the actual distances – were not communicated to the mushers until the pre-race meeting, roughly 48 hours before the start. The Iditarod has a trail description, albeit a bit dated, on their Website, but like the actual distances there was little information provided on the trail conditions specific to the current year until days before the race. There were no weather or trail updates given to me during the Iditarod, and much of the information was shared in a way that was good for veterans of the race but not helpful to a rookie.After the race, the Quest was logistically way easier. The dogs were all there with us and made the trip in our care. For Iditarod, there are more things to arrange. Dogs must be flown home, but booking these flights ahead of time can be a little tricky. For rookies, weather and trail conditions can make for a race that is faster or slower than even the best laid plans can predict, but waiting until Nome can also mean more expense and hassle. Kennels also need to be shipped – at the musher’s expense – ahead of the dogs’ arrival to the finish so they’ll have a place to live for a few days until they take their flight from Nome. Arrangements will need to be made to get the dogs from the dog lot to the airport as well. Consideration must be given to sending the dogs home early, or keeping them in your care until you can all leave together. Both have their pros and cons, and the decision will likely be based on how close to the banquet a musher finishes, and/or if there is a trustworthy handler on the other end of the flight. WHICH RACE IS TOUGHER? It’s difficult to say which is the tougher race. The Quest, taking place in mid February, is typically a colder and darker race. So, in addition to needing more food for the dogs, more fuel to heat, and more batteries to see, mushers may also be alone in the dark for as many as 17 hours day. Iditarod, occurring in March, is typically warmer and with much more daylight, and while somewhat easier and more comfortable to the musher, running the dogs during the long, hot days can really take its toll on them, so mushers may need to stick to a stricter run/rest schedule. Also, by March, many dogs will be entering their spring heat cycle which can wreck havoc on even the finest plans. For obstacles, in the Quest while rarely talked about, Birch Creek is just an insanely cold spot, so when it’s minus 40 in Circle or Central, rookies should expect it to be 20 degree colder on this creek. Also, amazingly, overflow is still a concern even in these temperatures, so extra precautions must be taken to not freeze any human or dog extremities if anyone gets wet. Rosebud is a mountain that doesn’t get much credit due to the infamy of Eagle summit, but this hill should be taken seriously in either direction. The incline was snowless the year I ran it, and beyond vertical. I literally freefell going down, and I would imagine it’s a heck of a scramble to go up it when the race runs south. Eagle Summit deserves every horror story that’s been told about it. This is not a place to be caught in a storm. Dropping off to travel south, I’m sure more than a few mushers have prayed whether they were religious or not. As to the climb up, it was steeper and harder than almost any training could have prepared my team for. I learned that many more teams falter than are ever talked about, and getting up this climb is more about musher perseverance than the drive of their dogs. I found the Yukon River long, vast, and mentally depleting. In 2009 there were expanses of jumble ice that kept the dogs and me dancing for hours, and despite running cautiously, one of my dogs sustained a broken toe in this section and had to be dropped.Iditarod also has four big obstacles: the Happy River Steps, The Dalzell Gorge, the Farewell Burn and all of the Bering Sea Coast. The Steps, while treacherous, weren’t anything more difficult than most mushers who train rigorously over diverse types of terrain would see. The bigger challenge for me came after the Steps. There were about 8 miles of sidehills on winding trail with broken branches that could (and did) easily snag the sled and gangline. As for the Dalzell Gorge, everything published focuses on the drop down, but if the weather turns bad, an equally arduous challenge can be crossing the summit of Rainy Pass to the Gorge itself. This is an area best crossed in good weather, even if it means cutting rest to stay ahead of a storm. The Burn in some ways has been underreported. Going into it, I expected “patches” of rough terrain, but it is an entirety—several hours long— of bare earth with unavoidable, sled-splitting duff moguls.As to the Bering Sea Coast, if there is one thing that does make the Iditarod harder than the Quest it would be this area. While the climb up Eagle Summit, close to the end of the Quest, is grueling and could take hours, by the end of a day mushers will either have made it or not. But the section of Iditarod that follows the coast is hundreds of miles long, which can mean days of difficult travel on windy, cold and wide open trail. FINAL ADVICEBoth races are impressive, but the small race field, and exceptionally friendly and down to earth volunteers and organizers of the Quest really contributed to the satisfaction of the experience. It was a 1,000-mile race that organizationally had the feel of a much smaller event. Still, it was a huge accomplishment. If Iditarod is the Mt. Everest of dog mushing, then the Quest is the K2 of the sport. From the moment of signup until crossing the finish, it was a quest for me, the team, and the kennel. For those who actually enjoy (rather than are just willing to endure) days of solitude with their dogs and traveling and camping miles from civilization alone, the Quest may be a perfect fit.By contrast, the Iditarod is undeniably the most famous sled dog race in the world and it was breathtaking to be a part of that. Despite a few organization flaws in some areas, the Iditarod does benefit from a handful of long-serving, very seasoned staff members. A few problems I had before and during the race were quickly addressed and solved by people like Race Marshal Mark Nordman and head veterinarian Stu Nelson. Overall, the Iditarod also has a much more diverse and stimulating landscape than the Quest. The remote village experience was a real treat, too, and the friendliness of those living in Unalakleet, Elim and a few other checkpoints alone would be enough to draw me back to this race. I believe that the Iditarod might be the most remarkable way to see Alaska, and if the entry fee was still under $2,000, I’d run this race annually. In the end, for rookies looking for an affordable adventure to test themselves or their team, the Quest is probably the best deal. For rookies looking to feel like a rock star for a few days, develop a fan base, and if budget isn’t a big concern, Iditarod might be what you’re looking for.

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